Democratic presidential campaigns in Iowa are sounding the alarm that the Bernie Sanders campaign may be planning the spin campaign of all spin campaigns: claiming victory before the results are fully tabulated.
They will be able to do this because of the way that the Iowa Democratic Party has set up the reporting of caucus results. Instead of one result, they will announce three separate outcomes.
The problem is that there will be three results coming in after Iowa voters gather on the evening of Monday, February 3.
One will be for something called “state delegate equivalents” — this is the number previously used to determine the winner of the Iowa Democratic caucuses, something I’ll explain more in a bit. But the Iowa Democratic Party will also be tallying and reporting two other sets of numbers: how many actual people voted for each candidate in a given caucus — first an initial tally, then a final tally taken after lower-performing candidates are eliminated.
AP and other major news outlets say they will declare a winner of the caucuses based on who won the most delegates. But that number won’t be announced until after the other two results are released.
You can see the opportunities for spinning the results. Which results? Whichever makes the candidate appear to be the winner.
Imagine a scenario where after the first round of voting, Sanders comes out on top with Biden a close second. Then, before the second results are released, Sanders starts a victory party at his Iowa headquarters. His surrogates pan out, hitting the TV shows with confident cries of “victory.”
A claim of victory after the first vote could encourage supporters of weaker candidates to leave the caucuses early without realigning with another candidate. Or it could create an artificial bandwagon effect by encouraging some caucus-goers to jump to Sanders’ side under the belief that he will be the victor.
Either scenario stands to hurt the campaigns that are more reliant than Sanders on the realignment round that happens after the first preference vote is cast. During realignment, supporters of candidates who failed to hit a 15 percent threshold in the first vote are freed up to switch to another candidate.
Sanders does not stand to benefit as much from the re-alignment phase of the caucuses as Biden. Most of the also-ran candidates are ideologically closer to Biden than Sanders and if they are going to switch, they are more likely to stand with the former vice president.
Anticipating trouble, the Biden campaign has struck pre-emptively:
“We have had private, ongoing conversations with multiple campaigns to ensure caucus integrity and voter protections are upheld. It is critical that no campaign undercut this democratic process with self-serving election interference,” a Biden campaign official said in a statement to POLITICO. “And the press should certainly not gratify any dishonest attempt to distort the process before it is finished.”
The press will be in the middle of reporting one of the biggest stories of the year and will probably be looking to fill dead air with anything that presents itself. Even if the story is that Sanders is trying to spin the results, Sanders gains.
If Sanders is thinking about doing this, you have to wonder if the other top-tier candidates aren’t thinking the same thing. And what about some of the trailers? Suppose the initial results show Amy Klobuchar finishing 4th or even 3rd, beating out Warren or Buttigieg? The temptation to highlight that result might be overwhelming, even if Klobuchar doesn’t reach the 15 percent threshold.
Let the games begin.